WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump's unyielding push to preserve Confederate symbols and the legacy of white domination, crystallized by his harsh denunciation of the racial justice movement Friday night at Mount Rushmore, has unnerved Republicans who have long enabled him but now fear losing power and forever associating their party with his racial animus.
Although amplifying racism and stoking culture wars have been mainstays of Trump's public identity for decades, they have been particularly pronounced this summer as the presidenthas reacted to the national reckoning over systemic discrimination by seeking to weaponize the anger and resentment of some white Americans for his own political gain.
Trump has left little doubt through his utterances the past few weeks that he sees himself not only as the Republican standard-bearer, but as leader of a modern grievance movement animated by civic strife and marked by calls for "white power," the phrase chanted by one of his supporters in a video the president shared last weekend on Twitter. He later deleted the video but did not disavow its message.
Trump put his strategy to resuscitate his troubled reelection campaign by galvanizing white supporters on display Friday night under the chiseled granite gaze of four past presidents memorialized in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He celebrated Independence Day with a dystopian speech in which he excoriated racial justice protesters as "evil" representatives of a "new far-left fascism" whose ultimate goal is "the end of America."
"Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children," Trump said to boos from a packed crowd of supporters. "Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities."
Over the years, some Republicans have struggled to navigate Trump's race baiting and, at times, outright racism, while others have rallied behind him. Bursts of indignation and frustration come and go, but have never resulted in a complete GOP break with the president. Trump's recent moves are again putting Republican officeholders onto risky political terrain.
On Friday night at Mount Rushmore, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., a member of the party's leadership, and other top Republicans were seen applauding as Trump spoke.
Trump's repeated championing of monuments, memorials and military bases honoring Confederate leaders has run up against the tide of modernity and a weary electorate that polls show overwhelmingly support the Black Lives Matter movement - a slogan that Trump said would be "a symbol of hate" if painted on Fifth Avenue in New York.
In Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy, a massive statue of Stonewall Jackson was dismantled to the cheers of onlookers and the ringing of church bells this week, and even inMississippi, the state legislature voted to remove the Confederate battle emblem from its state flag.
On Capitol Hill, some Republicans fret -- mostly privately to avoid his wrath -- that Trump's fixation on racial and other cultural issues leaves their party running against the currents of change. Coupled with the coronavirus pandemic and related economic crisis, these Republicans fear he is not only seriously impairing his reelection chances, but also jeopardizing the GOP Senate majority and its strength in the House.
"The Senate incumbent candidates are not taking the bait and are staying as far away from this as they can," said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican operative and chief strategist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has invested heavily in keeping GOP control of the Senate. "The problem is this is no longer just Trump's Twitter feed. It's expanded to the podium, and that makes it more and more difficult for these campaigns.
Trump has all but ignored the outcry and remains convinced that following his own instincts on race and channeling the grievances of his core base of white voters will carry him to victory against former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, according to a White House official and an outside Trump adviser who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
"It's the 2016 campaign all over again, when we had the Muslim ban and the wall, just add Confederate statues," the outside adviser said.
Trump allies say insist president's words and actions are not racist, but rather attentive to his core voters.
"President Trump has been more exposed to black people, black leaders and black culture than most previous presidents," said Armstrong Williams, a longtime adviser to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. "He doesn't see the implications of his tweets in the way that his critics do. He just loves his supporters."
Williams added, "This is someone who spoke at length on the phone to Don King on election night -- I was with Trump when he took the call. This is someone who welcomed Kanye West at the White House. That's who Trump is."
Jason Miller, a senior Trump campaign adviser, said "the mainstream media is never going to give the president the credit he deserves, in terms of his optimism and his belief in the American spirit."
He added, "There is a backlash against this counterculture, this cancel culture, and Americans are proud we're a beacon for freedom."
Racial animus and toxicity were woven throughout Trump's 2016 campaign. Patrick Gaspard, a former Obama White House political director who is now president of the Open Society Foundations, credited Trump with understanding "that there is a constituency -- a deep constituency, a solid constituency, a resolute constituency -- in the electorate for these views."
The difference now, four years later, Gaspard argued, is that the sentiments of many Americans about justice and disparity appear to have evolved.
"The Republican Party under Donald Trump has become a party wandering aimlessly in the street talking to itself and responding to itself, and all the rest of us have become the pedestrians trying to avoid that guy," Gaspard said.
Trump's commentary of late has been dizzying and visceral. He has referred to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, which originated in China, as the "kung flu." He has called racial justice demonstrators "thugs." He has attacked efforts to take down Confederate statues as an assault on "our heritage." And in an ominous hypothetical scenario, he described a "very tough hombre" breaking into a young woman's home while her husband was away.
Trump's Twitter feed, meanwhile, has become something of a crime blotter, with posts of grainy photos of suspected vandals the president labels anarchists and demands for lengthy prison sentences.
Former Ohio governor John Kasich, a Republican who ran against Trump in 2016, said the GOP's muted and scattered response to the president on race this week underscores how the party is "in decline" and has become a vessel for Trumpism - even as polls show Trump losing ground among seniors and white evangelicals and trailing Biden in every key battleground state.
"They coddled this guy the whole time and now it's like some rats are jumping off of the sinking ship. It's just a little late," Kasich said. "It's left this nation with a crescendo of hate not only between politicians but between citizens . . . It started with Charlottesville and people remained silent then, and we find ourselves in this position now."
Kasich added, "I'm glad to see some of these Republicans moving the other way but it reminds me of Vichy France where they said, 'Well, I never had anything to do with that,'" a reference to the French government that continued during Nazi occupation in the 1940s.
Racist symbols and ideas have long plagued U.S. politics, but Trump has tested the tolerance of Americans of a leader who shouts rather than whispers them. More than a strategy, this has been an expression of Trump's character and his dominance of a Republican base in which older white voters remain the key demographic.
As president, Trump has banned travel from seven Muslim-majority countries; equivocated over the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville; questioned the intelligence of basketball star LeBron James and numerous other African American figures; attacked the national anthem protests of black football players; and demanded that four Democratic congresswomen of color "go back" to the "crime infested places from which they came," among other actions and episodes.
Trump claimed last month that he had done more for black Americans than any president with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, who freed slaves and ended the Civil War -- but added to Fox News Channel anchor Harris Faulkner that Lincoln "did good, although it's always questionable."
Trump and his aides, in rebuking critics, often cite the passage of criminal justice reform as well as the pre-pandemic decline in the unemployment rate for blacks and other minority groups.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Matthews rejected the suggestion that the president has amplified racism.
"Whether the media decides to acknowledge it or not, President Trump has repeatedly condemned hatred and bigotry and encouraged all of us to come together," Matthews said in an email. "At the same time, the President stands against Democrats' radical calls to defund our brave police officers, cave to mob rule, and promote cancel culture which seeks to erase our history."
Leah Wright Rigueur, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government who has studied civil rights and written about the history of black Republicans, said there is a clear pattern in Trump's behavior and rhetoric.
"Trump is pretty predictable with his racism and his racialized take on things," Wright Rigueur said. "Every once in a while the Trump administration and campaign have flashes of what look like sincere outreach efforts to various racial communities . . . But that's the part that's insincere, and he always circles back to his core, and it renders all of this other stuff around the economy and criminal justice reform completely invalid because there's no way of ignoring the central component of his campaign."
Dianne Pinderhughes, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who focuses on race and politics, said Trump's latest outbursts are the culmination of his nearly decade-long effort to remake the GOP in his own image, going back to his racist "birther" attacks on Obama's credentials and love of country.
Trump's racism, she said, "is not subtle at all. Every step he takes, every comment about human beings, murders or killings, he can't hold back. Even as Mississippi and other parts of the country remove Confederate symbols, he goes in the opposite direction as hard as he can."
Some senators and their advisers believe they must expand their vote share beyond Trump's base to win reelection.
"The president's base is locked in. They love him, they're going to turn out and they're going to vote for him," GOP pollster Whit Ayres said. "The problem is that the base is not enough to win. You can make a case that protecting Confederate monuments is very popular among at least a portion of his base, but it does nothing to expand the coalition, and that's the imperative at the moment and will be going forward if the party hopes to govern."
Trump has not made it easy for embattled Republicans to duck him. He reaffirmed Tuesday that he would veto this year's proposed $740 billion annual defense bill if an amendment is included that would require the Pentagon to change the names of bases named for Confederate military leaders -- an amendment that has bipartisan support.
At times, some Republicans have been moved to speak out more forcefully on race, but when they have done so it has often been about lower-profile Republicans, such as Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who in June was defeated in a primary election, or various GOP candidates out in the country who pop up in the news for making racist statements -- far easier targets than a sitting president with zero tolerance for dissent.
Trump's approach has deep roots in Republican politics. Beginning with the violent opposition among some white voters to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Richard Nixon and other Republican politicians appealed to white voters -- especially in the South -- with calls for "law and order" and vows to defend states' rights as the federal government enforced the new laws.
The presidency of George W. Bush ushered in a period when the national party sought to grow its support among blacks and Hispanics. And following Mitt Romney's 2012 loss to Obama, the GOP produced a so-called autopsy report arguing that the party would need to make serious inroads among minority voters to survive changing demographics.
At the same time, however, Trump's "birther" campaign against Obama was gaining traction on the right, and he rode to victory in part on white grievance.
Most congressional Republicans in challenging races this year have long been mute on Trump's racist comments, or they have cast them as unhelpful or combative but not racist -- a method that has largely helped them avoid Trump's anger.
When asked two summers ago about Trump calling Omarosa Manigault, the president's former highest-ranking black adviser in the White House, a "dog," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, gave a typical GOP response: "I know you have to ask these questions but I'm not going to talk about that. I just think that's an endless little wild goose chase and I'm not going there."
Senate Republicans looking to hold onto the party's 53-seat majority are trying to balance their political alliance with Trump with their attempt to win over more moderate voters amid the reckoning over race. For instance, Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., recently co-sponsored a bill with Cornyn -- both are up for reelection in November -- and others to make Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery, a federal holiday.
Still, Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who has done extensive research on racial divisions, argued that Trump is likely to continue to play to "white resentment politics" because it is the only strategy that could stave off further erosion of his support.
"Without white resentment, there is no rationale for Donald Trump," Belcher said. "Without that, what reason do his supporters you have to be with Donald Trump if he's not going to be your tribal strong man? He started there and will end there."